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Once longing for an ‘emirate’ in Syria, HTS now struggles for survival

After a video was circulated showing fighters affiliated with HTS threatening Turkish soldiers in Idlib with “killings and beheadings,” the group denounced the threats.

30 April 2020

AMMAN — Not long after a video was circulated on social media showing fighters affiliated with Hayaat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) threatening Turkish soldiers in Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib with “killings and beheadings,” the group publicly denounced the threats.

In an explanation published in Turkish on Ebaa news agency, HTS made clear that the claims of those fighters were “false” and that their actions were morally and religiously unacceptable. The group added that it had begun “searching for those individuals who appeared in the video to ascertain their motives and investigate them.”

Furthermore, HTS did not miss the opportunity to reaffirm the role of the Turkish army as a “partner in the Syrian revolutionary war against the Syrian regime and its allies,” adding that its fighters had fought “in the same trenches alongside the [Turkish] who had sacrificed blood defending liberated lands [out of the control of the regime forces].”

The statement signifies a growing rapprochement between HTS and Turkey—or at the very least, a desire on the part of HTS to improve relations—especially after the ceasefire agreement in northwest Syria was reached on March 5 between Moscow and Ankara.   

Although HTS described the ceasefire agreement as marred by “ambiguity and lofty words, facilitating Russian aggression in the region,” the group thanked the Turkish government for its “support to the Syrian revolution and its participation in defending civilians and protecting them in the last battle.” 

Abandoning the dream of an emirate
Recently, HTS has made several important concessions to Turkey, especially its commitment to all the agreements made by Turkey under the framework of the Astana talks. It has also agreed to permit the entry of Turkish military convoys into northwest Syria and allow for the establishment of Turkish observation posts in the area. 

In the most recent military operation in Idlib, which preceded the Russian-Turkish agreement in early March, pictures circulated on social media showing fighters from HTS alongside soldiers from the Turkish army and pro-Ankara Syrian opposition factions. Several sources told Syria Direct that HTS’ fighters were using Turkish army vehicles to move between frontlines and take cover from Russian bombing. 

While these changes may not have affected HTS’ relationship with the civilians under its direct control, it may nevertheless be the last blow to its expansionist dreams of ruling northwest Syria as an “emirate.” In pursuing their ambitions, HTS has fought and eliminated dozens of opposition armed groups.

Muhammad, a journalist based in the city of Idlib, told Syria Direct under the condition of anonymity that HTS continues to “exploit, oppress and steal from civilians,” and that “its security forces have not changed anything apart from repressing freedoms.” He went on to say that “HTS is only trying to improve its public image through press statements and allowing international media to cover events in Idlib, but changing nothing internally.”

“They have become similar to the regime’s [infamous] Air Force Intelligence,” as Muhammad described them, “but with beards.” 

On the other hand, Ahmad, a journalist from the countryside of Idlib, described the relationship between HTS and Turkey as “temporary.” While “HTS is trying to exploit the presence of Turkey in Idlib as a cover in the face of international demands,” Ahmad told Syria Direct under the condition of anonymity, “Turkey is forced to deal with the group as it is the dominant military group in Idlib.” Nonetheless, “HTS’ dealings with the Turks represent a new trend through which the group is trying to keep itself afloat.”

Internal rifts
On April 7, the President of the General Shura Council in Idlib, Bassam Sohyouni, announced his resignation, noting that he would explain his reasons for doing so later. 

Since 2017, Sohyouni has emerged as a prominent academic and civic leader, trying to develop the civil and political work of HTS. He has stood at the forefront of every HTS-sponsored political project in northwest Syria, including the General Founding Congress in 2017, which aimed to establish a political and civil administration in Idlib, and the General Shura Council, which plays a parliament-like role in overseeing governance and the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG). 

According to several sources that spoke to Syria Direct, Sohyouni belongs to the moderate Syrian wing of Abu Muhammad al-Jolani’s project, the leader of HTS. His past statements were characterized as “rosy dreams”; however, he quickly realized that his ability to act on these ideals within HTS itself was quite limited.  

For example, in January 2019, Sohyouni told Enab Baladi, a Syrian opposition publication, that “there is a plan to manage liberated areas [in northwest Syria under the control of HTS and opposition factions] based on establishing an entity which represents those regions and functions as a parliament.” He went on to add that “we are proceeding in several directions, the most notable of which pertains to parliamentary work and the involvement of those on the ground in all provinces…this is the groundwork for a new administration.”

Sohyouni’s statements seemed to be an attempt to merge the “interim” government led by the Syrian National Coalition and the “salvation” government led by HTS. However, both parties rejected the attempted merger. 

Though it seems as if Sohyouni’s resignation and the subsequent handover of power to his successor Mustafa al-Mousa passed without incident, a recent resignation announcement by HTS shura council member, Abu Malik al-Talli (whose real name is Jamal Zayniyeh), could indicate trouble within HTS’s leadership.

According to al-Talli, his resignation came as a result of his lack of conviction in HTS’ goals, as well as having been kept in the dark about the internal affairs of the group. 

However, just three days after his resignation was announced, al-Talli had returned to his former position following a meeting with al-Jolani. 

Al-Jolani’s insistence to have al-Talli’s resignation reversed publicly is likely a result of his desire to stop the continued resignations of prominent leaders from the group, such as the religious leader of the HTS military wing, Abu al-Yaqthan al-Masri; the military commander Abu al-Abd Ashedaa; and the two religious scholars Abdullah al-Muhaisni and Musleh al-Olayani. 

Previously, al-Talli served as the Emir of al-Nusra Front (the old name of HTS) in the western Qalamoun in Reef Dimashq until he was transferred to Idlib in August 2017 under a deal made between Hezbollah and Damascus on one side and HTS on the other. 

Al-Talli, along with the two former prominent members of HTS, Abu al-Yaqthan al-Masri and Abu al-Fateh al-Faraghli, are considered to be in the more radical wing of HTS, which continues to reject the latest Turkish-Russian ceasefire deal

Al-Talli also rejected the Salvation Government’s decision to close the mosques in Idlib as a precautionary measure against the spread of the coronavirus. In defiance of the ban on social gatherings, he gave a Friday sermon in the city of Sarmada in the countryside of Idlib. 

Relations with Huras al-Din
In an interview with the International Crisis Group in February, Jolani described HTS’s relationship with the al-Qaeda-affiliated group, Huras al-Din, as “convoluted.” He pointed out that Huras al-Din has agreed “not to use Syria as a launching pad for external jihad and to recognise the Salvation Government.” 

In a statement published last week in “Bayan for Islamic Media,” a Huras al-Din commander, Abu Muhammad al-Sudani, called for the group’s “house to be put in order following provocations and attempts to expel [Huras al-Din] from its headquarters in northern Syria.”

The statement did not specify which groups had made those attempts, but rather referred to “fighters,” which seemed to be a thinly-veiled reference to HTS, which had sent fighters to the town of Armanaz to expel Huras al-Din fighters from their base in the town some hours before the statement. 

Al-Sudani also expressed his surprise at HTS’ attempt to open crossings with the government-held areas while “the Mujahideen are under pressure,” criticizing HTS for attempting to open a commercial crossing with the regime-held city of Saraqeb in southern Idlib.

Has HTS fallen into Turkey’s trap?
Several local sources told Syria Direct that HTS’s current political moves are merely attempts “to change its skin.” The group, however, appears to have fallen into a Turkish trap aimed to weaken, dismantle and absorb its Syrian fighters into the ranks of the Syrian National Army (SNA), which follows Ankara’s lead. 

The steady stream of reinforcements to the Turkish army and the SNA factions in Idlib province, as well as the construction of new observation posts also serve to remind HTS that if it should turn on Ankara, the response would be fatal for the group.

Under the terms of several agreements between Turkey and Russia, including the latest one in March, Turkey is required to dislodge HTS from the area.

However, the two countries differ on their vision for achieving this goal. While Russia wants to defeat the group entirely, Turkey prefers to promote the “pragmatic wing” of its leadership, according to Omer Ozkizilcik, a security studies researcher at the Ankara-based thinktank “SETA,” which is close to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). 

Accordingly, Ozkizilcik told Syria Direct previously that HTS “has to accept reality; they are no longer the stakeholder in Idlib, Turkey is. The best HTS can do is to dissolve itself.” 

But even though Turkey has “tipped the military balance in its favor” in northwest Syria, according to Abdulhai Ahmad (a pseudonym), an independent political science researcher living in the western countryside of Aleppo province, “HTS realizes the role that maintenance of security conditions in Idlib province plays in enhancing its influence.” 

HTS is trying “to re-enforce its security presence in the area, as they believe that whoever controls the security conditions controls the territory, which may benefit them in future negotiations,” Ahmad told Syria Direct

This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Rohan Advani and Will Christou.

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